Politician not so pushy – Sophie Mirabella wins $175,000: Mirabella v Price & Benalla Newspapers Pty Ltd [2018] VCC 650

Sophie Mirabella was the Member of the House of Representatives for the seat of Indi in rural Victoria from 2001 to 2013. In 2015, the Liberal Party pre-selected her once again to run in the 2016 election. Her opponent was independent, Cathy McGowan who had won the seat in 2013. The 2016 election was set for 2 July 2016.

The plaintiff
The plaintiff

In April 2016, while on the campaign trail, Mirabella found out that the Commonwealth Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt (a Liberal) would be visiting the electorate. One of his appointments was at a local aged care facility for an event to mark the extension of the facility. There was a plaque to be unveiled. A hub for local candidates and the media.

Magowan was in attendance and after the speeches, people mingled and Magowan tried to get a photo with Wyatt at the plaque. While she waited at the plaque, Mirabella told Wyatt that politically, the idea of a photo with her wasn’t a good thing to do. According to Wyatt, Mirabella put her hands on his chest while she said this. She didn’t want to her opponent to seem like a Liberal. She urged Wyatt not to assist.

The next day, the local newspaper, the Benalla Ensign was published. It published an article in ints internal pages, “Awkward Encounter”  referring to the event. It stated that Mirabella “Very publicly pushed Ms Magowan out of the way to obstruct the photograph being taken”. The photo being  of Wyatt and Magowan in front of the plaque. Mirabella, who was not asked for her version of events, was distraught. She did no such thing. She tweeted that she emphatically denied pushing her opponent.

Meanwhile, the ABC reported Mirabella’s denial on twitter and “former ABC presenter, Libby Price stands by the story. She said the incident was witnessed by a number of people and she independently confirmed it took place with four sources.”

The news item was then repeated in The Australian Online, other online sites and there was a Twitter flurry. Among the tweets: “Out of My Way ! – Benalla …. Sophie Mirabella is a bully!’, “I can positively say Sophie has a great left uppercut”,  “THE PUSHINATOR – I Won’t Be Back”, a website with a photo of Mirabella and a headline “Softer, Calmer Sophie Mirabella Pushes Cathy McGowan Rather than Punching Her in The Face”…. Etcetera.

Sophie Mirabella sued The Benalla Ensign and Libby Price, the journalist, in defamation. The newspaper ran an apology well after the election in October 2016 (which Magowan won) and it took a while before she issued, but in any event, the matter came before a jury in the County Court in Wangaratta.

Mirabella claimed that the articles meant and were understood to mean that she had physically pushed Cathy Magowan out of the way of a photograph for her own political reasons. This was not true. Indeed, the newspaper did not run any evidence to suggest that this was true.

The newspaper ran a defence that the article meant that she had pushed “a politician” out of the way (which they

The defendant
The defendant

claimed was true, in relation to her placing her hands on the chest of Wyatt), but all to no avail as the jury found that the articles meant what Mirabella claimed and there was no truth defence to that allegation.

It was then a matter for Judge Macnamara to assess the damages. Mirabella asked for $300,000-$400,000 and the newspaper asked that it be less than $100,000, claiming among other matters, that Mirabella engaged in disreputable conduct by stating to Wyatt before the trial that “we’ve got to get our evidence right”. However His Honour found nothing untoward about that. The statement could have meant anything. The newspaper also claimed that the defamation was not particularly serious and at the low end of the scale.

The Judge referred to the extensive republication of the defamatory article and the grapevine effect. His Honour concluded that the article provided the platform from which the tweets could be hurled at Mirabella and that the defamation caused significant hurt to Mirabella’s reputation. She might have lost the election, but the award of $175,000 damages would have helped. As for the politics, there is always 2019….